by Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin
Sometimes you get guidance that you don’t understand until much later. My husband Gordon and I woke up one morning a few
years ago with an idea that we couldn’t shake. We were to write a book about change. That book was published by Hay House two years ago, and it helped us adapt to the sudden change in the economy that has affected our entire family. The wisdom from Saying Yes to Change…continues to inspire me personally in what the media likes to call “turbulent times.” I hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from our book.
WE WERE watching the movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. A friend of Joan’s, Jim Curtan, had done an exciting exegesis of the film at a course that she’d attended, and we decided to watch it together from the perspective of change and transformation. Cast Away is not only the story of an unexpected catastrophic change, but a truly elegant demonstration of a three-part process of transformation that’s been described by anthropologists as a rite of passage.
Hanks’ character is a hard-driving, clock watching FedX trainer who metaphorically worships Chronos, the god of Time. Tick, tick, tick is his watchword, and nothing is more important than shaving a few minutes off of worldwide delivery times. The relational aspect of Hanks’ life is a pale specter in comparison to his endless work as a harried road warrior. There’s no time for the woman he loves, he wolfs his food down on the run and he can’t even look his colleague – whose wife is dying of cancer – in the eye. He’s not a bad guy, just a preoccupied, unconscious one.
Hanks’ old life ends abruptly when the FedX plane carrying him to Malaysia crashes in the South Pacific and he’s the only survivor. Marooned on a desert island for four years, he’s sustained by the antique pocket watch his fiancée gave him for Christmas on the night they parted. The mechanism is ruined when the plane crashes and time stops – both literally and figuratively. Chronos has, in fact, become irrelevant in the new dimension he’s entered. It’s the picture of his lost love, mounted in the top half of the watch that keeps him alive. Several FedX packages wash ashore with him, and one contains the other source of his salvation, a soccer ball. He paints a face on it with the blood of his wounded hand and names it Wilson, the brand name on the ball. It’s this imaginary friend who becomes integral to Hanks’ developing compassion.
His four-year sojourn in the ocean wilderness is a time of transition. His old life went down with the plane and he hasn’t yet been reborn to a new life. He’s in a kind of no man’s land, a transitional place, where there’s plenty of time to think about the meaning of life. The end of his long transition from the man who he was to the man he is becoming nears an end when the metal carcass of the plane’s Portapotty finally washes ashore. He builds a raft and uses the metal structure as a sail. The ordeal at sea on the tiny raft is terrifying and the defining moment comes when Wilson washes overboard in the aftermath of a storm. Torn between swimming out to sea to rescue his friend and losing his own life, Hanks chooses life. His grief is almost unbearable, a tribute to the humanity that’s been growing inside him during his ordeal on the island. At this point in his journey, magic happens. A whale keeps watch over him, singing mysterious songs of beauty. In the nick of time a ship passes by and rescues him. The Hanks who returns to America, however, is a far different man than the one who left.
On the FedXplane home – just after his rescue – he looks straight into the eyes of the man whose wife was dying when he left. With deep humanity, he apologizes that he wasn’t there for him. Hanks has become a mensch – a wise and compassionate human being. His fiancée, meanwhile, believing him dead, married and has a child. Their reunion is poignant and while it’s clear that she’d give up her marriage to be with him again, he knows that she’s found a new life that needs to be honored.
The film ends with a reflective, mature Hanks standing at the intersection of four dusty country roads, the same place where the film began. It’s a deeply symbolic image, both a crossroads and a cross. Father Thomas Keating, a modern Christian contemplative, speaks of the cross as symbolic of two movements in our lives. Its horizontal arm represents the death of our time-bound false self, the ego that developed early in life to keep us safe by conforming to other people’s notions of what it means to be human. The vertical arm represents resurrection into the realm of kairos, the eternal present in which our true nature resides. Moving from one to the other, from the fearful, time-bound world of chronos to the compassionate, timeless world of kairos is at the heart of the transformational journey. But what does this mean in practice? How does the shift from one story to another happen?
In rite of passage stories, the protagonist recognizes and embodies his real self in a three-part journey. First, he or she is forced to leave the known world, and all that’s been loved. The loss and separation are wrenching, irrevocable. Perhaps you’ve had that experience. Maybe you lost your job, or had to declare bankruptcy. Maybe you’ve had a health challenge. When a person is diagnosed with cancer or AIDS, they often say that it feels like the earth has opened up and swallowed them. Nothing is the same as it was just a moment before. They’ve died to the person they were, and have not been reborn as who they will some day become.
That sudden catapulting from the known into the mystery is the end of the first stage of the transformative process, which is always marked by separation and loss. In the second phase of the journey, the main character enters a transitional state, what Cornell anthropologist Victor Turner, who studied ritual in the Ndembu tribe of Southwest Zambia, called the liminal phase. The initiate stands at the limen, the threshold of something new, but they haven’t arrived there yet. The boy who leaves his mother’s hut to go into the forest for circumcision is no longer a boy. But he’s not yet a man.
This intermediate stage is a place of magic where chaos rules and even the usual constraints of physics may be overcome. Getting through the transitional period of liminality in traditional rites of passage involves facing numerous ordeals. One of the most remarkable aspects of these ordeals is that they can’t be faced and overcome in the usual linear manner of the chronos world. The initiate must become still, and give up his personal will to attune with the higher wisdom of kairos. This is a challenge in its own right because it’s contrary to the usual way that the ego functions, using personal will to push forward. The transitional period when we stand at the threshold of possibility crackles with both danger and opportunity. The danger is getting so stressed out that anxiety, depression and despondency take over. The opportunity is self-realization.
The third stage of the rite of passage is return. The Ndembu boy who left his mother’s hut in the first phase of his journey usually spends a year or two in the bush. He’s no longer a boy during this liminal phase, but he’s not yet a man. In his transitional period, he learns from other men what it means to be a warrior and a man of heart. And he also spends time alone, like Hanks in Cast Away, learning to know himself. The person who finally returns from the initiation is not the same person who left. The boy has become a man with authentic wisdom to give to his tribe. The journeyer, having found true strength, offers it to the community for the common good. Mythologist Joseph Campbell described this transformational sequence of self-realization as the Hero’s Journey.
Adapted from Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for Your Journey by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. and Gordon Dveirin, Ed.D. (Hay House, 2006) Joan Borysenko presents the workshop Saying Yes to Change at the Spirit Heals Conference, May 29, 9-12pm and delivers a public keynote, May 29, 7-9:30pm. To register call 250-472-4747.